Climate change–both the literal thaw in the Siberian permafrost and the political thaw in the Cold War militarization that long controlled life in the Soviet Arctic–is currently exposing long-frozen tusks of ancient wooly mammoths to the light of day and the vicissitudes of the global economy.
Until the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, woolly mammoths ranged the grasslands of eastern Siberia. As the icecaps melted and sea level rose, the grasslands became forest or were submerged in the Arctic Ocean, until hungry mammoths were eventually crowded together on isolated islands in the eastern Arctic. The last of them died there about 3,500 years ago.
A mammoth tusk like this one, which weighs 150 pounds, can sell for $60,000 in the Siberian town of Yakutsk, and it may fetch $200,000 or more in the ivory markets of China.
Each summer, thawing permafrost exposes more tusks in gravelly riverbanks and seaside bluffs, especially on remote, uninhabited islands north of easternmost Siberia. Each spring, Yakut tusk-hunters cross the frozen sea to begin searching for the new "crop" of ivory; they work alone or in small crews, living on scant rations in rough huts, until late-summer snowstorms once again hide their quarry.
The unlucky ones leave then, returning home emptyhanded in small boats in rough waters. The lucky ones hang on for a few more weeks, however, till the ocean freezes again and they can transport their tusks much more easily in sledges hauled by snowmobiles.
The Russian painter Ivan Shishkin was illustrating scenery in Poland in 1890, when he completed this painting of the swampy forests of the Pripyat, or Rokitno, marshland. Today, the spot where he set up his easel could be in Ukraine or Belarus or Russia or perhaps extreme eastern Poland.
But the scene he painted may or may not look much the same. The marshes of Polessia remained lightly settled throughout much of the twentieth century; the forests there provided years of cover for partisans fighting for and against the Nazis and the Soviets.
Then came the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, which devastated much of the countryside, leaving large stretches radioactive and uninhabitable. Not all the wildlife has returned. Although herons have again been reported, "mushrooms and berries," it is said, "set Geiger counters screaming."
When the Cold War thawed, old Russian cultural traditions became new again, and Ded Moroz–Father Frost–emerged from hiding up near the Siberian part of the North Pole to resume his holiday responsibilities.
To acknowledge the new cultural politics, Ded Moroz's many colleagues in northern and eastern Europe–notably Joulupukki, Finland's Christmas Goat–now seek him out at border crossings and Christmas markets across the continent. The two Nicks typically engage in a little winter diplomacy, sometimes competing in endeavors such as chimney climbing.
This picture features Ded Moroz presenting a gift to Joulupukki during a diplomatic mission in Minsk, capital of Belarus.
Incidentally, Ded Moroz can sleep in Christmas morning, because in Russia, the gift thing doesn't happen till New Year's. Happy New Year's one and all......
We all know that artists are often politically minded people, and that much art is intended, on some level or another, to communicate political ideas. But we all also know that works of political art, regardless of whether or not they succeed artistically, usually fail to directly accomplish much of anything politically. The paintbrush is not often mightier than the sword.
A couple of months ago, artwork on the streets of Yekaterina, Russia, a city of almost two million people about a thousand miles east of Moscow, got the political job done. The city fathers of Yekaterina–the regional governor, the mayor, and the vice-mayor–had all been elected on promises to repair potholes and other problems in the city's badly deteriorating roadways. Once in office, however, they seemed to lose interest; despite citizen complaints, the potholes just kept getting worse and worse.
One dark night in July, Yekaterina artists took to the streets of center city and painted portraits of the three well-known politicians with wide-open mouths surrounding three of the worst potholes. They documented their work with a video that they posted to a popular local website; an English-language video about their video is here.
The next day, the potholes were fixed and the portraits scrubbed from the pavement. Officials denied that the artwork had anything to do with the sudden burst of municipal maintenance.
Yekaterina was already a city with a certain artistic sensibility; in addition to their potholes, the downtown streets feature a bronze monument to Michael Jackson.
In hopes of fostering the development of medical science in Russia, Peter the Great scoured the West for natural history objects: taxidermy, live birds and insects, botanical and anatomical illustrations, and paraphernalia associated with monsters. Albertus Seba, a wealthy Dutch pharmacist and traveler, had amassed the largest natural history collection of the mid-18th century. Peter bought all of Seba's objects and library, including this book of colored zoological plates, and installed everything in St. Petersburg, where it became the nucleus of the Russian national collections.
The book is currently in the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas.
This early twentieth-century advertising placard recommends drinking Georges Borman cocoa if you want to be big and strong.
The Petrovsky-Palace-on-the-way was built in 1782 so that Catherine the Great and her entourage would have a place to stop and rest up on the last night of what was then an arduous seven-day journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
According to the intertubes, she spent only a single night there, in 1785. Napoleon also spent a night at the palace, in 1812, while hiding from the fires that were raging through Moscow. Throughout the nineteenth century, czars and emperors used Petrovsky Palace as a staging site from which their coronation processions headed to the Kremlin.
After the revolution, the Soviets rebuilt all the imperial palaces in the Moscow area except for this one, which was preserved on the grounds of the top-secret Zhukovsky Military-Engineering Academy of Aviation. After perestroika it came into the hands of the city government, which recently restored and reopend Petrovsky Palace as a guest house and reception center for VIPs visiting Moscow.
The satellite view of Philadelphia in infrared, from a few days ago, led some people to ask for more false-color imagery of our planet. Here we've got a river delta in the tundra of eastern Siberia, where the River Lena empties into the Arctic Ocean. The image is from mid-summer, when the plants of the tundra were bursting with new growth, thanks to twenty-four hours a day of sunlight. The color scheme here is different from that of the Philadelphia scene but still not closely related to the colors a human eye would detect. The data displayed comes from three sensors on the Landsat satellite: one that detects infrared energy, another that detects near-infrared energy, which is very sensitive to the chemicals associated with growing vegetation, and a third sensor that picks up a part of the visible spectrum. Vegetation is green, exposed rock or soil is pink, wet soil (mud) is purple, and ice is blue.
Even in mid-summer, the sea ice floats close to shore. It will take another month or two for most of the ice to melt and/or wash out to sea, but as soon as it does freezing temperatures will return and ice formation will begin again.
The innumerable ponds and distributary streams are typical of flat places throughout the Arctic tundra, where permafrost just below the surface impairs drainage. Meltwater and rainwater sit on top of the permafrost all summer long, breeding mosquitoes...... which don't show up in the satellite imagery.
This is Barnaul, a city of 800,000 in Siberia, located deep in the heart of central Asia, near the mountain range where Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China come together.
Barnaul grew large and relatively wealthy because of its double-edged location: close to the Altai Mountains, with their riches of silver, copper, and other minerals, but far from the rest of the world. During World War II, the Soviet Union relocated many of its munitions industries to Barnaul, safely distant from the front but close to major railroads that had been built for ore transport. Russia's largest ammunition plant, one of the largest in the world, still operates today in Barnaul.
The downtown area of the city doesn't look like this; it was modeled after Saint Petersburg and is known for handsome classical architecture, a sampling of which I will try to post here soon. But around the edges of town, in amongst the old silver-smelting factories and the ore-loading facilities, what we see here is what we get in twenty-first-century Barnaul.